On his arrival at Cairo airport, on the morning of February 7, Patrick George Zaky did not expect to find the police waiting for him. The young Egyptian researcher and activist had planned to visit his relatives in the city of Mansoura, 120 km from Cairo, for the first time since he began his studies. However, as he arrived at passport control, an agent pulled him aside and brought him to a private room. There, Zaky was blindfolded and transferred to a secret location, where he was put in custody of Egypt’s National Security Agency, and questioned for roughly 24 hours. During the interrogation, Egyptian sources reported that the young student “was beaten, subjected to electric shocks, threatened, and questioned about various issues related to his work and activism.” He was accused of disseminating false news, inciting protest, and promoting terrorism, most likely as a result of his work as a researcher and activist.
Zaky is a 28-year-old Egyptian student who was born in the city of Mansoura. Since August 2019, he has been pursuing a master’s degree in Gender Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy. In addition to his studies, Zaky has for long been an active member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an organisation that aims to “strengthen and protect basic rights and freedoms in Egypt, through research, advocacy and supporting litigation in the fields of civil liberties, economic and social rights, and criminal justice.”
When the news of the arrest started to spread through Italian news organisations, the emotional connection to Giulio Regeni, an Italian student who disappeared and was killed in Egypt in 2016, seemed inevitable. Once again, the repression of a researcher and activist re-engendered the longstanding request for a reconsideration of Rome-Cairo relations.
Who was Giulio Regeni?
Regeni was an Italian student, pursuing a PhD at Cambridge University. His main research focused on independent Union groups that were established in Egypt after 2011. In particular, he was interested in how the Arab Spring and the regime change from Mubarak to al-Sisi impacted these groups. During his studies, he decided to move to Cairo in order to gain first-hand experience and conduct interviews. Yet, Regeni never finished his research: he disappeared on January 25, 2016, on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, and was found dead a few days later on February 3. His body was found in a ditch along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, near the city of Giza, Egypt.
As soon as investigations began, Italian authorities started to question official Egyptian reports on Regeni’s death. It appeared difficult to conclusively cite a cause for his death. Initially, the vice-head of the Judicial Police in Giza, Egypt, told the Italian authorities that Regeni was killed in a car accident. Then, in contradiction to this statement, Egyptian doctors reported that their autopsy revealed that Regeni was killed by a fatal blow to the head. Different stories started to circulate and contradictions emerged. At this time, the Italian authorities, urged by the Italian media and several civil society organisations, decided to take action to ensure Egypt’s cooperation with investigations by the Italian government. It was decided to summon back the Italian ambassador in Egypt and to resolutely ask for joint investigations. These actions appeared effective initially. Egyptian authorities allowed Regeni’s body to be transferred to Italy, where Italian doctors performed another autopsy. Results displayed a very different story: the cause of death was a broken neck. Whilst Regeni had been beaten repeatedly on the head, these blows were not fatal. They were evidence of torture, along with the many cuts, bruises, and scratches on his body. Letters had also been engraved on his skin, which is a common practice of the Egyptian police, as reported by the Guardian.
Today, more than four years have passed since Regeni’s death. Yet, what truly happened to him on those days between January 25 and February 3 is still unclear. The Egyptian government continues to be reluctant in its efforts to pursue the case. On the Italian side, Rome has been accused by civil society organisations of having lost its initial determination in finding the real cause of death. The Italian ambassador is back in Cairo and business between the two countries functions as usual. In particular, the exchange of arms and partnership for oil extraction has continued to grow. “We would have expected a more decisive and determined action towards Egypt, with a more effective involvement from Europe”, said Giulio’s father, Carlo Regeni, at the beginning of this year.
So far, the most active campaign has been led by Amnesty International Italy, which is demanding that Italian authorities cease all political and economic relations with Egypt. The organisation has been able to mobilise millions of people and local institutions in the country. However, their impact has remained limited. At the European level, for example, efforts have led to little progress as the declarations by European leaders are sporadic and there remains no common strategy to act on the issue.
Current Developments in The Patrick Zaky Case
Zaky was arrested upon his return to Egypt for vacation in February. As he reappeared for the first time since the arrest in front of the prosecutors in Mansoura, the Egyptian authorities claimed that Zaky had been issued an outstanding warrant in September 2019. The warrant included the following accusations: “incitement to protest without permission from the relevant authorities with the aim of undermining state authority; calling for the overthrow of the state; managing a social media account that aims to undermine the social order and public safety; incitement to commit violence and terrorist crimes.” However, the student said that he was never informed about this warrant or the charges.
As the first trial took place, the Mansoura’s prosecution decided to detain the student for another 2 weeks, pending further investigations. At this time, Zaky was held in a prison in Talkha, which is a 20-minute drive from Mansoura. Here, the student reportedly shared a cell with five other Egyptians who were all in prison on charges of criminal acts, ranging from theft to murder. As quoted by his mother, Zaky has asked, “What am I doing among these people? Why am I here with criminals?” As Zaky appeared to the media for the first time after the arrest, he said into the microphone that he just wants to go back to his studies.
Since the first trial, several trial sessions have taken place but judges have continuously decided to extend Zaky’s detention. Currently, people in Italy and Egypt await the next trial session, which will occur on March 21.
Until recently, Zaky remained in Talkha. Yet, on March 7, his family attempted to visit the student in the prison, but, upon arrival, they learnt he was no longer being held there. Zaky had been transferred to a prison just outside Cairo named Tora, reported his lawyers. Tora consists of different units, including a maximum-security prison, known as “The Scorpion,” and a military hospital. The Scorpion has been denounced several times by human rights defenders for the violations and abuses that prisoners have undergone there. At present, it remains unclear in which section of the prison Zaky is currently being held, but his lawyers are trying to acquire this information.
Time to Act
As the news about Zaky was released, voices in Italy started to rise immediately to free the student, to ensure that this time, he does not meet the same fate as Regeni. The first to launch a public appeal for Zaky’s release was Amnesty International. The organisation has requested, on its website, for the immediate and unconditional release of the student. Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The authorities’ arbitrary arrest and torture of Patrick Zaky is yet another example of the state’s deep-rooted repression of perceived opponents and human rights’ defenders, which reaches more audacious levels with each passing day.” Together with Amnesty, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is informing Egyptians and the rest of the world about developments in Zaky’s case. The organisation is asking for Zaky’s immediate and unconditional release as well, stressing the lack of justification to detain him.
In addition to these campaigns, another strong voice advocating for Zaky’s release has been the Dean of Bologna University, Francesco Ubertini. Together with the students, he supported marches on the streets and attempted to raise solidarity among other countries in Europe. According to Ubertini, European states must not commit the same mistakes as they did in Giulio Regeni’s case. This time, he said, the European Union as a whole and its member states should actively intervene to pressure the Egyptian government.
At the European level, the most authoritative response came from Davide Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament. During a session in the Parliament, he said: “I want to remind the Egyptian authorities that EU relations with third countries rely on the respect of human and civil rights.”
The Government Response
Within the Italian government, the Minister of University and Research, Gaetano Manfredi, said that he has started working in collaboration with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, “through diplomatic channels to find certain and transparent information and verify the respect of human rights.” Similarly, the Undersecretary for Education, Peppe de Cristofaro, has called for the Italian authorities to take more action in the fear that Zaky is: “undergoing arbitrary and unjustified detention and that he is the new victim of violence and abuse by the security forces.”
The response from the Cairo authorities was equally strident in defending their actions. The President of the Egyptian House of Representatives stated that Sassoli’s claim is an “unacceptable interference in internal affairs.” Patrick Zaky is an Egyptian citizen and the issue is, therefore, to be dealt with by the Egyptian court, he argued
Since Abdelfattah al-Sisi became President in 2013, the human rights conditions in Egypt have dramatically deteriorated, according to some nonprofit groups. At least 60,000 people have been arrested or charged, hundreds have disappeared for months, hundreds more have been issued death sentences. To hold all of these people, at least 19 prisons or jails have been created.
Recently, Amnesty International published a report entitled “Permanent State of Exception,” based on research conducted between April and October 2019. The report, in particular, discussed the role of the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) that has become a central tool for the repression of dissidents against the al-Sisi government. While the court has traditionally held the power of prosecuting crimes related to “state security,” it has recently started to work in close collaboration with the National Security Agency, which is in charge of investigations. The SSSP has expanded its power in the recent years, promoting legislations and verdicts concerning counter-terrorism measures that have been used to accuse dissidents of the regime. To this regard, the report stated that: “the SSSP is responsible, on a significant scale, for arbitrary detention based on the misuse of vague national security legislation.” It further revealed that suspects of crimes are often denied effective legal representation, never informed about their rights, and subjected to coercive methods during interrogations.
The Continued Call for Freedom
On different days over the last month, in Bologna and other cities around Italy, thousands of people gathered together to march peacefully. They are asking for the release of the young Egyptian, holding signs that state: “Free Patrick”. Many in Italy have stressed that now is the time to give a voice to Zaky and ensure he is able to safely return to his studies. The hope is that the greater mobilisation will put additional pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release the student. Now, a month after Zaky’s arrest, everyone is waiting for the next judgement, which will be delivered on March 21.